Valium is the original brand name for a popular benzodiazepine medication diazepam. This is a long-acting benzodiazepine, and it is prescribed to treat a variety of conditions, including anxiety and panic disorders, alcohol withdrawal symptoms, muscle spasms, and some seizure disorders. Diazepam comes in pill form, and it can also be taken as an oral solution, injectable substance (typically in a hospital setting), and even as a gel. The drug has been a prescription medication to treat ailments since the 1960s, and it is a Schedule IV medication per the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA).
How Is Valium Used Medically, and How Is It Abused?
This medication has a range of sedative/hypnotic qualities, and it can lead to a sense of relaxation that helps to reduce panic attacks, relax muscles, and stop or reduce seizures. Valium binds to the gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) receptors in place of the neurotransmitter, so transmissions between neurons are slowed. This can lead to a calm, floating, or even intoxicated feeling. Unfortunately, for some people, this sensation becomes addictive, and it can lead to Valium abuse.
In fact, some recent research suggests that Valium can trigger the brain’s reward system, which releases dopamine – another neurotransmitter that induces pleasure, happiness, and other good feelings. When a medication triggers the reward system, which is a primary symptom of addiction, this can be very problematic for people who receive Valium prescriptions, especially those who have struggled with other substance abuse issues in the past.
Physical and Psychological Effects
Since Valium is a prescription drug, it is designed to have some effects on the brain that help to ease anxiety or withdrawal symptoms. However, there are other potentially negative physical and psychological consequences to taking Valium, especially for longer than one month.
- Feeling tired, drowsy, or sleepy
- Difficulty remembering things
- Spinning sensation or dizziness
- Irritability or restlessness
- Weak muscles
- Constipation, nausea, or vomiting
- Dry mouth
- Slurred speech
- Vision problems, including double vision or blurred vision
- Itching or mild rash
Effects on the Brain
Valium has a profound effect on the brain. For people who take this medication as prescribed, the majority of these effects involve reduced anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, withdrawal symptoms, or seizures. However, for people who struggle with Valium abuse, there can be other mental, behavioral, or emotional side effects. Some of these include:
- Memory problems: Benzodiazepines of all kind are linked to amnesia, blackouts, and difficulty remembering events or learning new information. In some instances, this effect of Valium is exploited before surgery, both to calm the patient and to prevent them from remembering the surgery itself. In large doses due to nonmedical abuse of Valium, this can lead to alcohol-like blackouts or an inability to remember certain events.
- Depression: Valium and other benzodiazepines can trigger dopamine release through the brain’s reward system, and too much of this release can lead to depression.
- Paradoxical excitement or disinhibition: People who take too much Valium, or who have struggled with Valium addiction for a long time, can begin to experience effects that are not calming, including rebound insomnia or anxiety, panic attacks, aggression, antisocial behaviors, paranoia, or nightmares.
People who struggle with substance abuse problems, particularly alcohol use disorder, are at risk of developing an addiction to Valium or of having their original addiction triggered by the substance. Although Valium is one of the leading medicines prescribed to treat alcohol withdrawal symptoms, a study published on PubMed indicated that taking this medication could increase the consumption of and the craving for alcohol.
There is a potential for long-term abuse of Valium to induce encephalopathy, or organic brain disease. The consistent chemical changes to the brain over many years can lead to permanent cognitive problems, including changes in perception of oneself, one’s relationships, and the surrounding environment.
Effects on the Body
In addition to the effects on the brain, Valium can cause several effects on the body as well. Here are a few common problems linked to Valium abuse and addiction:
- Problems with coordination: This is linked to oversedation. Large doses of Valium can lead to a loss of coordination, difficulty moving the limbs, and reduced reaction times. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that Valium and other diazepam medications are capable of reducing motor function two hours after the dose, for up to 3-4 hours after that.
- Tolerance and dependence: Becoming dependent on a substance like Valium means that the body requires this chemical on a regular basis to feel normal. Tolerance means that the body becomes used to the brain chemistry changes induced by Valium, so the body does not experience the same relaxation or euphoria as the original doses. In combination, these physical cravings often lead people struggling with Valium addiction to increase the amount they ingest, which can lead to overdose.
Withdrawal symptoms are often felt in the body, although many of them can be psychological. Typical Valium withdrawal symptoms include:
- Abdominal cramps
- Muscle cramping, aches, or weakness
- Tremors or shaking
- Vomiting or nausea
- Rebound anxiety or insomnia
- Difficulty concentrating
- Irritability, depression, or mood swings
In some cases, people who have struggled with a long-term benzodiazepine addiction can experience benzodiazepine withdrawal syndrome (BWS). This cluster of symptoms consists of mostly more intense withdrawal symptoms, protracted for weeks or months. However, BWS has several other symptoms that can be physically dangerous, including:
- Numbness or tingling in the extremities
- Sensitivity to light or sound
Signs of Valium Addiction
Dependence on a substance, experiencing intoxication similar to being drunk, suffering side effects, or experiencing withdrawal symptoms when attempting to quit are all signs of addiction. However, there are behavioral changes that can indicate a potential Valium addiction too, which outside observers like friends and family should look for. Some of these include:
- Feeling like the drug must be taken regularly
- Feeling concerned or anxious about the next dose
- Urges or craving for the drug, including taking more than necessary
- Ensuring a supply of the drug, including through theft or doctor-shopping for multiple prescriptions
- Failing to go to work or school, or to spend time with friends and family
- Preferring to take the drug rather than fulfill personal or professional obligations
- Being unable to stop taking the drug, even when the individual wants to do so
- Becoming combative, aggressive, irritated, or anxious when asked about drug use
Getting Help for Valium Abuse
When a person decides to overcome their addiction to benzodiazepines like Valium, there are a few basic steps to take. First, find a doctor or rehabilitation program that can help with Valium withdrawal. This will most often involve tapering the size of the dose over weeks or months, which reduces the possibility of withdrawal symptoms, particular BWS. In other benzodiazepine tapering plans, Valium is sometimes substituted because it is such a long-acting benzodiazepine, so detoxing from Valium can take longer than from other short-acting benzodiazepines. However, it is a first important step to overcoming the addiction.
Once the individual has detoxed from Valium, or during the detox process, therapy will begin. Inpatient and outpatient programs, as well as Partial Hospitalization Programs, Intensive Outpatient Programs, sober living homes, and more are all viable treatment options. Typically, the type of rehabilitation program a person enters depends on their social support at home, their insurance coverage, their geographical location, their ability to stay away from sources of Valium or other intoxicating substances, and their philosophical preferences.
Regardless of which type of program a person enters, comprehensive rehabilitation programs are the best way to overcome an addiction and remain sober on a long-term basis. Rehabilitation offers social support and therapy, so the person will gain skills to deal with triggers or stress that might otherwise lead to relapse.